To bee or not to bee (a bee keeper)

To bee or not to bee (a bee keeper)

The topic of honey bees has raised its fuzzy head several times over the past couple of months, with several beauty brands gaining environmental recognition for their work with honeybees (either through the use of bee products, contributing money to honeybee research or encouraging hobbyist bee keepers). However, as anyone who has happened to mention they’re thinking of installing a hive or learning the art of bee keeping have found to their peril, it’s a topic I feel quite strongly about.

So, brace yourselves, the time has come for me to come clean about my discrimination against honeybees…

Media attention surrounding beekeeping

In recent years, the decline of the honeybee has received a lot of attention from the media, with hives collapsing as a result of disease, parasites and chemical contaminants. This media attention has caused a resurgence in beekeeping and as a result the number of hives is on the up; in Scotland alone there are now over 10,000 hives supporting around 400 million honeybees.

The decline in honeybee numbers therefore isn’t a problem in terms of the longevity of the species (we can always breed more), honeybees are not particulalrly rare and their decline isn’t a conservation issue.

A larger issue at hand

Honeybees play a vital role in our industrial agricultural system however, with many industries relying on bee products (e.g. honey and beeswax) as well as the services they provide (with 70 of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of food worldwide being pollinated by bees).

So, the issue is a much larger problem for us humans who have come to rely on honeybees for our food. If honeybee numbers decline, our wellbeing declines. And as a living person on planet earth (and a honey lover) I have to say I fully appreciate the services that professional bee keepers are providing to mankind.

However, when it comes to issues of conservation, the environment and sustainability, I think lines are being crossed. Although honey bees do much of our pollinating for us, it is not just honeybees that are capable of fulfilling this role.

In the UK we have 270 species of bee (25 species of bumble bee and 249 species of solitary bee in addition to the honeybee). Not to mention the 1,250 other insects that are able to carry out pollination services for us. So, surely we can do away with our honeybees and let our wild pollinators do the job for us instead? They not only require zero maintenance (no silly suits required) but are also more efficient pollinators than honeybees.

But herein lies the problem. Many wild pollinator species are of conservation concern, with diversity decreasing and populations in decline as a result of habitat destruction and intensive agricultural practices, not to mention the effects of climate change. For example, over 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930’s, over 50,000 miles of hedgerow have been dug out and just 2% of ancient woodland now remains, leaving very little food in our landscape for species which feed on flowers. To make matters worse, where honeybees occur in high numbers, they compete directly for this limited food supply with our wild pollinators.

The public is now well acquainted with the welfare state for our pollinators, with bees on benefits being supported by seed bombs, unmown verges, wildflower rich roundabouts and pollinator hotels. These resources all offer a life-line to our wild pollinators in desperate need of a place to call their own. For example,the Seilich meadow can produce up to 13,000 flowers in the summer (supplying over 1KG nectar for pollinators!).

The tangle between media and the truth

However, with media coverage of the honeybee running concurrently alongside the plight of our pollinators, I believe that the two stories have become entangled.

The public has understandably been led into thinking that our honeybees are of conservation concern; that by keeping honeybees you are doing nature a favour and that by buying bee products you are somehow supporting natures plight. I think this confusion has also understandably led industry leaders in the beauty sector to award beauty brands using bee products or supporting the plight of the honeybee to gain recognition for their environmental work. And I ask for this to stop! These messages reinforce the existing confusion and detract from the real conservation issue, that of declines of our wild pollinators!

To install a bee hive into my wildflower meadow would undo a lot of the good work that has been done for wild pollinators in the area, and as much as I love honey, i’m just not willing to compromise my conservation ethos for the sake of some of the sweet stuff!

A final thought. Honeybees, though essential for honey and beeswax production, are not the only pollinators. In fact, honeybees can be thought of as the chickens of the bee world (domesticated and used for agricultural use), and as Olivia Norfolk (Lecturer in Conservation Ecology, Anglia Ruskin University) says, ‘keeping honeybees to help the plight of pollinators is like keeping chickens because you’ve heard wild birds are endangered’.

Let’s change the conversation here, when it comes to sustainability and conservation, lets make sure our wild pollinators take centre stage.

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